updated 2/14/2007 2:19:16 PM ET 2007-02-14T19:19:16

When a man fails to help out around the house, his poor performance might be related to a subconscious tendency to resist doing anything his wife wants, a new study suggests.

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Men and women are sure to argue about this one. In fact, the man and woman who led the study disagree on the meaning of the results.

Psychologists have long known about "reactance," the tendency to do the exact opposite of what's requested by a loved one or boss. The new study aimed to find out whether the phenomenon might occur at a subconscious level.

Participants were asked to name a significant person they perceived as controlling their lives, and another who just wanted them to have fun. Then they were asked to discern words from jumbled letters on a computer screen while the names of the people they had mentioned were flashed subliminally.

The names were flashed too quickly to be registered consciously. Subjects performed better when exposed to the name of the person who wanted them to have fun than when exposed to the controlling individual's name.

"Our participants were not even aware that they had been exposed to someone else's name, yet that nonconscious exposure was enough to cause them to act in defiance of what their significant other would want them to do," said Gavan Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University.

Doing the opposite
Further testing found that study participants who were more reactant responded more strongly to the subliminal cues and had a wider performance gap.

"People with a tendency toward reactance may nonconsciously and quite unintentionally act in a counterproductive manner simply because they are trying to resist someone else's encroachment on their freedom," said Tanya Chartrand, also a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke.
Chartrand's own experiences were the impetus for this study.

"My husband, while very charming in many ways, has an annoying tendency of doing exactly the opposite of what I would like him to do in many situations," Chartrand said.

Oh, her husband? That would be Fitzsimons.

Chartrand said her husband "should now be better equipped to suppress his reactant tendencies." But Fitzsimons said the results "suggest that reactance to significant others is so automatic that I can't possibly be expected to control it if I don't even know it's happening."

The findings related to this marital spat, announced this week, were published online by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

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